Ready player one, p.7
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       Ready Player One, p.7
 

           Ernest Cline

  rock, new wave, punk, heavy metal. From the Police to Journey to R.E.M. to the Clash. I tackled it all.

  I burned through the entire They Might Be Giants discography in under two weeks. Devo took a little longer.

  I watched a lot of YouTube videos of cute geeky girls playing ’80s cover tunes on ukuleles. Technically, this wasn’t part of my research, but I had a serious cute-geeky-girls-playing-ukuleles fetish that I can neither explain nor defend.

  I memorized lyrics. Silly lyrics, by bands with names like Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and Pink Floyd.

  I kept at it.

  I burned the midnight oil.

  Did you know that Midnight Oil was an Australian band, with a 1987 hit titled “Beds Are Burning”?

  I was obsessed. I wouldn’t quit. My grades suffered. I didn’t care.

  I read every issue of every comic book title Halliday had ever collected.

  I wasn’t going to have anyone questioning my commitment.

  Especially when it came to the videogames.

  Videogames were my area of expertise.

  My double-weapon specialization.

  My dream Jeopardy! category.

  I downloaded every game mentioned or referenced in the Almanac, from Akalabeth to Zaxxon. I played each title until I had mastered it, then moved on to the next one.

  You’d be amazed how much research you can get done when you have no life whatsoever. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, is a lot of study time.

  I worked my way through every videogame genre and platform. Classic arcade coin-ops, home computer, console, and handheld. Text-based adventures, first-person shooters, third-person RPGs. Ancient 8-, 16-, and 32-bit classics written in the previous century. The harder a game was to beat, the more I enjoyed it. And as I played these ancient digital relics, night after night, year after year, I discovered I had a talent for them. I could master most action titles in a few hours, and there wasn’t an adventure or role-playing game I couldn’t solve. I never needed any walkthroughs or cheat codes. Everything just clicked. And I was even better at the old arcade games. When I was in the zone on a high-speed classic like Defender, I felt like a hawk in flight, or the way I thought a shark must feel as it cruises the ocean floor. For the first time, I knew what it was to be a natural at something. To have a gift.

  But it wasn’t my research into old movies, comics, or videogames that had yielded my first real clue. That had come while I was studying the history of old pen-and-paper role-playing games.

  Reprinted on the first page of Anorak’s Almanac were the four rhyming lines of verse Halliday had recited in the Invitation video.

  Three hidden keys open three secret gates

  Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits

  And those with the skill to survive these straits

  Will reach The End where the prize awaits

  At first, this seemed to be the only direct reference to the contest in the entire almanac. But then, buried among all those rambling journal entries and essays on pop culture, I discovered a hidden message.

  Scattered throughout the text of the Almanac were a series of marked letters. Each of these letters had a tiny, nearly invisible “notch” cut into its outline. I’d first noticed these notches the year after Halliday died. I was reading my hard copy of the Almanac at the time, and so at first I thought the notches were nothing but tiny printing imperfections, perhaps due to the paper or the ancient printer I’d used to print out the Almanac. But when I checked the electronic version of the book available on Halliday’s website, I found the same notches on the exact same letters. And if you zoomed in on one of those letters, the notches stood out as plain as day.

  Halliday had put them there. He’d marked these letters for a reason.

  There turned out to be one hundred and twelve of these notched letters scattered throughout the book. By writing them down in the order they appeared, I discovered that they spelled something. I nearly died of excitement as I wrote it down in my grail diary:

  The Copper Key awaits explorers

  In a tomb filled with horrors

  But you have much to learn

  If you hope to earn

  A place among the high scorers

  Other gunters had also discovered this hidden message, of course, but they were all wise enough to keep it to themselves. For a while, anyway. About six months after I discovered the hidden message, this loudmouth MIT freshman found it too. His name was Steven Pendergast, and he decided to get his fifteen minutes of fame by sharing his “discovery” with the media. The newsfeeds broadcast interviews with this moron for a month, even though he didn’t have the first clue about the message’s meaning. After that, going public with a clue became known as “pulling a Pendergast.”

  Once the message became public knowledge, gunters nicknamed it “the Limerick.” The entire world had known about it for almost four years now, but no one seemed to understand its true meaning, and the Copper Key still had yet to be found.

  I knew Halliday had frequently used similar riddles in many of his early adventure games, and each of those riddles had made sense in the context of its game. So I devoted an entire section of my grail diary to deciphering the Limerick, line by line.

  The Copper Key awaits explorers

  This line seemed pretty straightforward. No hidden meaning that I could detect.

  In a tomb filled with horrors.

  This line was trickier. Taken at face value, it seemed to say that the key was hidden in a tomb somewhere, one filled with horrifying stuff. But then, during the course of my research, I discovered an old Dungeons & Dragons supplement called Tomb of Horrors, which had been published in 1978. From the moment I saw the title, I was certain the second line of the Limerick was a reference to it. Halliday and Morrow had played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons all through high school, along with several other pen-and-paper role-playing games, like GURPS, Champions, Car Wars, and Rolemaster.

  Tomb of Horrors was a thin booklet called a “module.” It contained detailed maps and room-by-room descriptions of an underground labyrinth infested with undead monsters. D&D players could explore the labyrinth with their characters as the dungeon master read from the module and guided them through the story it contained, describing everything they saw and encountered along the way.

  As I learned more about how these early role-playing games worked, I realized that a D&D module was the primitive equivalent of a quest in the OASIS. And D&D characters were just like avatars. In a way, these old role-playing games had been the first virtual-reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself, using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books. This realization kind of blew my mind. It changed my whole perspective on the Hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg. From then on, I began to think of the Hunt as an elaborate D&D module. And Halliday was obviously the dungeon master, even if he was now controlling the game from beyond the grave.

  I found a digital copy of the sixty-seven-year-old Tomb of Horrors module buried deep in an ancient FTP archive. As I studied it, I began to develop a theory: Somewhere in the OASIS, Halliday had re-created the Tomb of Horrors, and he’d hidden the Copper Key inside it.

  I spent the next few months studying the module and memorizing all of its maps and room descriptions, in anticipation of the day I would finally figure out where it was located. But that was the rub: The Limerick didn’t appear to give any hint as to where Halliday had hidden the damn thing. The only clue seemed to be “you have much to learn if you hope to earn a place among the high scorers.”

  I recited those words over and over in my head until I wanted to howl in frustration. Much to learn. Yeah, OK, fine. I have much to learn about what?

  There were literally thousands of worlds in the OASIS, and Halliday could have hidden his re-creation of the Tomb of Horrors on any one of them. Searching every plane
t, one by one, would take forever. Even if I’d had the means to do so.

  A planet named Gygax in Sector Two seemed like the obvious place to start looking. Halliday had coded the planet himself, and he’d named it after Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons and the author of the original Tomb of Horrors module. According to Gunterpedia (a gunter wiki), the planet Gygax was covered with re-creations of old D&D modules, but Tomb of Horrors was not one of them. There didn’t appear to be a re-creation of the tomb on any of the other D&D-themed worlds in the OASIS either. Gunters had turned all of those planets upside down and scoured every square inch of their surfaces. Had a re-creation of the Tomb of Horrors been hidden on one of them, it would have been found and logged long ago.

  So the tomb had to be hidden somewhere else. And I didn’t have the first clue where. But I told myself that if I just kept at it and continued doing research, I’d eventually learn what I needed to know to figure out the tomb’s hiding place. In fact, that was probably what Halliday meant by “you have much to learn if you hope to earn a place among the high scorers.”

  If any other gunters out there shared my interpretation of the Limerick, so far they’d been smart enough to keep quiet about it. I’d never seen any posts about the Tomb of Horrors on any gunter message boards. I realized, of course, that this might be because my theory about the old D&D module was completely lame and totally off base.

  So I’d continued to watch and read and listen and study, preparing for the day when I finally stumbled across the clue that would lead me to the Copper Key.

  And then it finally happened. Right while I was sitting there daydreaming in Latin class.

  Our teacher, Ms. Rank, was standing at the front of the class, slowly conjugating Latin verbs. She said them in English first, then in Latin, and each word automatically appeared on the board behind her as she spoke it. Whenever we were doing tedious verb conjugation, I always got the lyrics to an old Schoolhouse Rock! song stuck in my head: “To run, to go, to get, to give. Verb! You’re what’s happenin’!”

  I was quietly humming this tune to myself when Ms. Rank began to conjugate the Latin for the verb “to learn.” “To Learn. Discere,” she said. “Now, this one should be easy to remember, because it’s similar to the English word ‘discern,’ which also means ‘to learn.’ ”

  Hearing her repeat the phrase “to learn” was enough to make me think of the Limerick. You have much to learn if you hope to earn a place among the high scorers.

  Ms. Rank continued, using the verb in a sentence. “We go to school to learn,” she said. “Petimus scholam ut litteras discamus.”

  And that was when it hit me. Like an anvil falling out of the sky, directly onto my skull. I gazed around at my classmates. What group of people has “much to learn”?

  Students. High-school students.

  I was on a planet filled with students, all of whom had “much to learn.”

  What if the Limerick was saying that the tomb was hidden right here, on Ludus? The very planet where I’d been twiddling my thumbs for the past five years?

  Then I remembered that ludus was also a Latin word, meaning “school.” I pulled up my Latin dictionary to double-check the definition, and that was when I discovered the word had more than one meaning. Ludus could mean “school,” but it could also mean “sport” or “game.”

  Game.

  I fell out of my folding chair and landed with a thud on the floor of my hideout. My OASIS console tracked this movement and attempted to make my avatar drop to the floor of my Latin classroom, but the classroom conduct software prevented it from moving and a warning flashed on my display: PLEASE REMAIN SEATED DURING CLASS!

  I told myself not to get too excited. I might be jumping to conclusions. There were hundreds of private schools and universities located on other planets inside the OASIS. The Limerick might refer to one of them. But I didn’t think so. Ludus made more sense. James Halliday had donated billions to fund the creation of the OASIS public school system here, as a way to demonstrate the huge potential of the OASIS as an educational tool. And prior to his death, Halliday had set up a foundation to ensure that the OASIS public school system would always have the money it needed to operate. The Halliday Learning Foundation also provided impoverished children around the globe with free OASIS hardware and Internet access so that they could attend school inside the OASIS.

  GSS’s own programmers had designed and constructed Ludus and all of the schools on it. So it was entirely possible that Halliday was the one who’d given the planet its name. And he would also have had access to the planet’s source code, if he’d wanted to hide something here.

  The realizations continued to detonate in my brain like atomic bombs going off, one after another.

  According to the original D&D module, the entrance to the Tomb of Horrors was hidden near “a low, flat-topped hill, about two hundred yards wide and three hundred yards long.” The top of the hill was covered with large black stones that were arranged in such a way that, if you viewed them from a great height, they resembled the eye sockets, nose holes, and teeth of a human skull.

  But if there was a hill like that hidden somewhere on Ludus, wouldn’t someone have stumbled across it by now?

  Maybe not. Ludus had hundreds of large forests scattered all over its surface, in the vast sections of empty land that stood between the thousands of school campuses. Some of these forests were enormous, covering dozens of square miles. Most students never even set foot inside them, because there was nothing of interest to do or see there. Like its fields and rivers and lakes, Ludus’s forests were just computer-generated landscaping, placed there to fill up the empty space.

  Of course, during my avatar’s long stay on Ludus, I’d explored a few of the forests within walking distance of my school, out of boredom. But all they contained were thousands of randomly generated trees and the occasional bird, rabbit, or squirrel. (These tiny creatures weren’t worth any experience points if you killed them. I’d checked.)

  So it was entirely possible that somewhere, hidden in one of Ludus’s large, unexplored patches of forestland, there was a small stone-covered hill that resembled a human skull.

  I tried pulling up a map of Ludus on my display, but I couldn’t. The system wouldn’t let me, because class was still in session. The hack I used to access books in the school’s online library didn’t work for the OASIS atlas software.

  “Shit!” I blurted out in frustration. The classroom conduct software filtered this out, so neither Ms. Rank nor my classmates heard it. But another warning flashed on my display: PROFANITY MUTED—MISCONDUCT WARNING!

  I looked at the time on my display. Exactly seventeen minutes and twenty seconds left until the end of the school day. I sat there with clenched teeth and counted off each second, my mind still racing.

  Ludus was an inconspicuous world in Sector One. There wasn’t supposed to be anything but schools here, so this was the last place a gunter would think to look for the Copper Key. It was definitely the last place I had ever thought to look, and that alone proved it was a perfect hiding place. But why would Halliday have chosen to hide the Copper Key here? Unless …

  He’d wanted a schoolkid to find it.

  I was still reeling from the implications of that thought when the bell finally rang. Around me, the other students began to file out of the room or vanish in their seats. Ms. Rank’s avatar also disappeared, and in moments I was all alone in the classroom.

  I pulled up a map of Ludus on my display. It appeared as a three-dimensional globe floating in front of me, and I gave it a spin with my hand. Ludus was a relatively small planet by OASIS standards, about a third the size of Earth’s moon, with a circumference of exactly one thousand kilometers. A single contiguous continent covered the surface. There were no oceans, just a few dozen large lakes placed here and there. Since OASIS planets weren’t real, they didn’t have to obey the laws of nature. On Ludus, it was perpetually daytime, regardless of where you stood
on the surface, and the sky was always a perfect cloudless blue. The stationary sun that hung overheard was nothing but a virtual light source, programmed into the imaginary sky.

  On the map, the school campuses appeared as thousands of identical numbered rectangles dotting the planet’s surface. They were separated by rolling green fields, rivers, mountain ranges, and forests. The forests were of all shapes and sizes, and many of them bordered one of the schools. Next to the map, I pulled up the Tomb of Horrors module. Near the front, it contained a crude illustration of the hill concealing the tomb. I took a screenshot of this illustration and placed it in the corner of my display.

  I frantically searched my favorite warez sites until I found a high-end image-recognition plug-in for the OASIS atlas. Once I downloaded the software via Guntorrent, it took me a few more minutes to figure out how to make it scan the entire surface of Ludus for a hill with large black stones arranged in a skull-like pattern. One with a size, shape, and appearance that matched the illustration from the Tomb of Horrors module.

  After about ten minutes of searching, the software highlighted a possible match.

  I held my breath as I placed the close-up image from the Ludus map beside the illustration from the D&D module. The shape of the hill and the skull pattern of the stones both matched the illustration perfectly.

  I decreased the magnification on the map a bit, then pulled back far enough to confirm that the northern edge of the hill ended in a cliff of sand and crumbling gravel. Just like in the original Dungeons & Dragons module.

  I let out a triumphant yell that echoed in the empty classroom and bounced off the walls of my tiny hideout. I’d done it. I’d actually found the Tomb of Horrors!

  When I finally managed to calm down, I did some quick calculations. The hill was near the center of a large amoeba-shaped forest located on the opposite side of Ludus, over four hundred kilometers from my school. My avatar could run at a maximum speed of five kilometers an hour, so it would take me over three days to get there on foot if I ran nonstop the entire time. If I could teleport, I could be there within minutes. The fare wouldn’t be much for such a short distance, maybe a few hundred credits. Unfortunately, that was still more than my current OASIS account balance, which was a big fat zero.

  I considered my options. Aech would lend me the money for the fare, but I didn’t want to ask for his help. If I couldn’t reach the tomb on my own, I didn’t deserve to reach it at all. Besides, I’d have to lie to Aech about what the money was for, and since I’d never asked him for a loan before, any excuse I gave would make him suspicious.

  Thinking about Aech, I couldn’t help but smile. He was really going to freak when he found out about this. The tomb was hidden less than seventy kilometers from his school! Practically his backyard.

  That thought triggered an idea, one that made me leap to my feet. I ran out of the classroom and down the hall.

  Not only had I figured out a way to teleport to the other side of Ludus, I knew how to get my school to pay for it.

  Each OASIS public school had a bunch of different athletic teams, including wrestling, soccer, football, baseball, volleyball, and a few other sports that couldn’t be played in the real world, like Quidditch and zero-gravity Capture the Flag. Students went out for these teams just like they did at schools in the real world, and they played using elaborate sports-capable haptic rigs that required them to actually do all of their own running, jumping, kicking, tackling, and so on. The teams had nightly practice, held pep rallies, and traveled to other schools on Ludus to compete against them. Our school gave out free teleportation vouchers to any student who wanted to attend an away game, so we could sit up in the stands and root for old OPS #1873. I’d only taken advantage of this once, when our Capture the Flag team had played against Aech’s school in the OPS championships.

  When I arrived in the school office, I scanned the activities schedule and found what I was looking for right away. That evening, our football team was playing an away game against OPS #0571, which was located roughly an hour’s run from the forest where the tomb was hidden.

  I reached out and selected the game, and a teleportation voucher instantly appeared in my avatar’s inventory, good for one free round-trip to OPS #0571.

  I stopped at my locker long enough to drop off my textbooks and grab my flashlight, sword, shield, and armor. Then I sprinted out the front entrance and across the expansive green lawn in front of the school.

  When I reached the red borderline that marked the edge of the school grounds, I glanced around to make sure no one was watching me, then stepped across the line. As I did, the WADE3 nametag floating above my head changed to read PARZIVAL. Now that I was off school grounds, I could use my avatar name once again. I could also turn off my nametag completely, which was what I did now, because I wanted to travel incognito.

  The nearest transport terminal was a short walk from the school, at the end of a cobblestone path. It was a large domed pavilion supported by a dozen ivory pillars. Each pillar bore an OASIS teleportation icon, a capital “T” in the center of a blue hexagon. School had only been out for a few minutes now, so there was a steady stream of avatars filing into the terminal. Inside were long rows of blue teleportation booths. Their shape and color always reminded me of Doctor Who’s TARDIS. I stepped into the first empty booth I saw, and the doors closed automatically. I didn’t need to enter my destination on the touchscreen because it was already encoded on my voucher. I just slid the voucher into a slot and a world map of Ludus appeared on the screen, showing a line from my present location to my destination, a flashing green dot next to OPS #0571. The booth instantly calculated the distance I would be traveling (462 kilometers) and the amount my school would be invoiced for the fare (103 credits). The voucher was verified, the fare showed as PAID, and my avatar vanished.

  I instantly reappeared in an identical booth, inside an identical transport terminal on the opposite side of the planet. As I ran outside, I spotted OPS #0571 off to the south. It looked exactly like my own school, except the surrounding landscape was different. I spotted some students from my school, walking toward the nearby football stadium, on their way to watch the game and root for our team. I wasn’t sure why they bothered. They could just as easily have watched the game via vidfeed. And any empty seats in the stands would be filled with randomly generated NPC fans who would wolf down virtual sodas and hot
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